Did your dog ever ask you: “What the hell is going on?” I mean, like on the third day of vacation in a cottage someplace totally different from home. He looks at you with his ‘existential’ face instead of his ‘what’s next’ face; the one with knowing skepticism. The face that says: “You know I will do what ever you want, but could you please just explain all this sand?” “Yeah, and what are crabs, exactly?” “And that big water bowl tastes salty and gives me explosive diarrhea.” “Really, where is our life going and why?”
Faith in love is the most basic element of a relationship. As humans we can use words, language, gestures and intonation to convey all sorts of details and subtleties about love. We expect these techniques to work in all communication but, in some moments, it fails us completely. Our conversations can instantly be reduced to one as simple as between a dog and his master. Coming out can be one of those occasions. Sometimes there is only this answer: “Sorry, doggie, you’ll know it once it happens. Until then trust that I will love and care for you.”
In the time of YouTube and Facebook young folks have a slew of “It Gets Better” and other coming out models to follow. Something like six million people have come out on Facebook alone. In contrast, during the 1970s there were few if any role models for coming out. Each person blazed their own trail blindly. If someone was lucky, they could prepare a plan and have the time and support necessary to execute the plan. Some others were forced out of the closet door unexpectedly, which was harder, and often life-altering in extremely negative ways. The “it gets worse” side of things is a harsh and un-cool place to be.
One commonality of gay life in the 1970s was the ritual telling of coming out stories. Everybody has one. The stories were a natural point of reference for living in the gay world. I would listen to another guy’s story and think, that’s not so bad, or wow you had it rough! Some stories were so devastating as to make the whole room cry and some were funny and surprising. All of them provided a context for what it meant to live the gay experience.
I was mystified at the stories coming from gay Catholics with their matter-of-fact discussion of abuse by priests. I heard these stories during the years I was getting my MFA in Detroit. The repetition of story after story of what must have been horrible childhoods made me, at first, question the veracity of the stories until I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of priestly experiences. I felt honored, in a sad way, to hear this discussion, as if I were now part of an elite club of secret knowledge. I wasn’t even Catholic and yet I knew the intimate details of what eventually became sensational child abuse scandals thirty years later. Child rape was a way of life in Catholic coming out story after story. All of this was common knowledge in my circle of Detroit friends. It was almost a joke actually — another aspect of the downtrodden lives of sexual misfits. These gay Catholics seemed to believe they deserved the abuse. It was a contextual standard for the next chapter of a coming out story; insert your priestly experiences here.
Hearing those stories I could begin to imagine what had happened to Mark Sobota, my eight-year-old, first, best friend who came back from Father Pedantic’s (not the real names) summer camp a different boy than the one who had left. He had been assigned the honor of Father’s ‘favorite’ that summer. Gradually, as I looked back to those awkward memories, a thought became clear: had Mark been raped by this priest? Why, after two weeks at camp, would he reject affection, isolate himself, have a fear of old friends, and act out in anger all the time; it was so unlike him? And, why would he become a priest himself later in life?
A grad-school friend of mine, David, wanted to be a priest very badly and yet, because he would not deny his sexuality, he was excluded. I watched him struggle year after year as other, less-honest gay men were taken into the training program. They had no problem stretching the veracity of their sacred vows. David had integrity while they did not, yet they got the job and he did not. Secrets are required to become a priest? I guess if your duties involve shuffling unveiled pedophiles from parish to parish, secrets might just be an essential requirement for the job.
If your dog can take you on faith alone, while theological bureaucrats require you to lie and even turn away those who are truthful, then you have to wonder who has the better moral code? It makes me want to put on my existential face and ask: “Really, where are our lives going and why?”
This is an adaptation of a chapter from Billy’s Moral Adventures, Featuring Serious Emotions Such as Those Brought on by Death, soon to be published. Text copyright © 2016 William W. O’Donnell